UN chief Ban Ki-moon on Tuesday urged all sides to the Gaza conflict to immediately cease their fire, warning at a news conference in Cairo that an escalation will endanger the whole region.
“All sides must halt fire immediately,” Ban said, as an Israeli military operation against rocket-firing militants in Gaza entered a seventh day, with 112 Palestinians and three Israelis killed.
“Further escalating the situation will put the entire region at risk,” he added, sitting alongside Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi after the two had held what Ban described as a “very constructive meeting”.
“I'm visiting the region because of the alarming situation in Gaza,” the UN secretary general said. “I'm here to appeal personally for an end to the violence.”
He and Arabi, he said, “share a deep concern about the appalling rising cost in human lives” in Gaza.
An Israeli ground offensive in Gaza, Ban said, “would only result in further tragedy”.
“Once again families and children are dying as a result of senseless violence,” said Ban, who arrived in Cairo on Monday.
The UN chief was to fly to Israel and the Palestinian West Bank later on Tuesday for meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.
Egyptian mediators have been hosting marathon indirect talks between a Hamas team led by Khaled Meshaal and an Israeli envoy, which an Egyptian official said had produced “encouraging signs” on ending the crisis.
Ban said Israel had “legitimate security concerns” but he would call in his visit to Jerusalem “on the Israeli leadership to end the violence and firmly reiterate that Israel must respect its obligations under international law”.
International efforts were mounting to bring the crisis to a halt, with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also due hold meetings with meetings with Netanyahu and Abbas this week.
Amid intensifying diplomacy, senior Israeli ministers decided overnight to hold off from launching an invasion of Gaza to give the truce efforts a chance, a senior Israeli official said.
“A decision was taken that for the time being there is a temporary hold on the ground incursion to give diplomacy a chance to succeed,” he told AFP after a late-night session of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's key ministers, the Forum of Nine.
But the Israeli aerial and naval bombardment of the Palestinian territory continues as Hamas militants launched rockets into Israel.
Three Palestinians were killed in two separate strikes in Gaza on Tuesday morning, the ambulance services spokesman said.
Monday was the bloodiest day of the Israeli operation since it was launched on Wednesday, with 32 people killed. At least 112 Palestinians and three Israelis have died in the fighting so far.
An Israeli army spokeswoman told AFP that at least three rockets hit southern Israel overnight, and two more were intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defence system.